Since 2005 I have worked with children and developmentally disabled adults. I have done so in a number of venues, from juvenile justice to mental and behavioral health, sometimes in the mornings, sometimes during the day and most often at night. I am most driven to work at night. In part this is because I function better at night and sleep better during the day, even though I have suffered from a strange form of insomnia for the past nineteen years. In larger part I do so because the function of third shift is greatly underappreciated and misunderstood in my field, and I'm always about the enlightenment.
I don't like making it easy. I'm told us dead folk rarely do. We're really only interested in challenges. At times I have challenged myself too hard and have forgotten to step back before I become overwhelmed. It is in the nature of my kind to face destruction up close and then recover from it. It is an addiction those of us who have been dead and come back from it share, although some of the "pretty boys" (as one of my kind once called them) like to deny this and talk endlessly about how wonderful and kind and focused we are. We're addicted to the edge because we've been to it, gone past it, and now everything in life is either incredibly easy or so mundane we can't help it. It is in part due to this that I prefer to work with teenaged girls who have had very bad experiences with adult men. This isn't just because it isn't easy. It is because it is important work. Gaining the trust of and building a therapeutic relationship with someone who has been abused, molested, raped and in some cases nearly killed by an adult man is extremely important. Imagine living the life of a young girl who has become convinced through experience that every man she encounters is going to be abusive and cruel to her. Now imagine growing up and becoming a woman who has these same convictions. It is a life more horrible than I can imagine.
I often tell my co-workers on third shift that they should never underestimate the importance of what we do on the night shift. We are present at the most vulnerable time of the day for young people who have been violated when they were at their most vulnerable. When other shifts complain that we are too kind and too lenient I have to cut in. It is important, at times, that we are. Trusting us is more important than trusting the staff who work while they are awake. We are there when they shower, when they wet the bed, when they have nightmares. We are there when they wake up confused and afraid. Imagine you have a bunch of people walking around in your home checking on you regularly and watching you sleep. You have to trust those people or you are going to find yourself a gun.
And I walk around at night, as an adult man, around sleeping teenaged girls who have been molested, raped, beaten and abused. A friend of mine once said to me, "You watch girls sleep for a living? What a cool job. How can I get hooked up with a gig like that?" He didn't really understand. Neither do a lot of the people I work with. It isn't a science. It is an art.
Once upon a time I had this girl who woke up with a terrible nightmare. Her mother was a drug addict and a prostitute, leaving this girl to take care of her younger siblings. While she was in the facility I worked in she had bad dreams about her younger siblings being abducted and abused because she was not there for them. She was visibly freaked out by the dream and panicking on a level I rarely see. I told her I would sit in her doorway for the rest of the night to make sure she was okay. This was a girl whose mother's johns regularly took advantage of her sexually. With me sitting in her doorway she found enough peace of mind to sleep the rest of the night without interruption.
For some, the darkness is very much alive. It is all they know and they don't know how to process it. My kind likes to say that intimacy with the darkness makes us stronger, that it teaches us valuable lessons we could not otherwise learn. That is my kind. Children who live in the darkness don't know how to cope with it. They become hypervigilant, responding aggressively to every perceived threat, even to ones that do not exist.
I know a girl who spent the first decade plus of her life chained to a bed. She was fed junk food and forced to play video games. Her step-father would beat her regularly. And in a radical display of sadism this man would return later to rub salt in the wounds from the earlier beating. You can't make this shit up. She is convinced that she must be mean to all people all the time so that they won't hurt her.
When I first met her I gave her regular consequences for her behavior, consequences within the system of my workplace designed to teach children that actions have consequences. People used to ask me why I was so hard on her, why I never cut her any slack or let her be. There was a reason. She would purposely provoke me in order to receive consequences. She would try to infuriate me and fail. Everything was completely unemotional, "You have broken the rules, now you need to complete these consequences." She would curse at me every morning. She called me "The Mean Man." She is now extremely attached to me to the point where I have to remain at a distance most of the time. Why? Because I gave her consequences for her behavior, because I never relented or cut her any breaks, but I never beat her and rubbed salt in her wounds no matter what she said to me or what she did.
You know how children have a natural tendency to rebel? This girl was chained to a bed and forced to play video games and eat junk food. Now she wants to eat healthy food and wants to learn about everything. I have conversations with her about astronomy and Greek mythology. And she knows her shit because she reads everything she can get her hands on. She reads encyclopedias and old National Geographics. She studies maps and star charts and asks me to explain why the Roman Empire fell.
She still says she has to be mean to people before they are mean to her. It is a defense mechanism. I once asked her if she needed to be mean to me. She got me when she said, "Yeah, I did." I passed the test. I live to pass tests.
The dark knows no quarter. It devours those who enter its realm and those who live in light cannot understand. I've known so many stories of children and adults who have grown up and lived in darkness. I've become almost immune to the specifics of stories, although some can still get to me. I once knew a girl who tried to get boys at school to get her pregnant because she was afraid her father would get her pregnant because he raped her every night. I knew a girl whose mother killed her boyfriend's wife because she was going to expose their affair then told the daughter it was because she was "such a disappointment" to her before going off to prison. I knew a boy whose father bought him a bottle of tequila for his fifth birthday, his fifth birthday, and then convinced him to drink it to get to the rubber worm at the bottom because it would give him super powers. I have to convince these people to trust me and know that I only care about one thing, getting them to cope with the horror of their lives and to embrace the adventure of life that stands before them. Kids don't generally think more than a day ahead at a time, but when it comes to being in treatment kids learn to see the future.
I'm tired most of the times these days. I'm carrying a lot of weight from my own life's adventures, and sometimes it gets to be quite a bit. I'm saddled with post-traumatic stress disorder, with insomnia and with all that comes from being one of my kind. Yet I cannot give up.
In 2005 I faced a crossroads. My angel, Anastasia, told me as I looked for guidance on what I was supposed to do with the rest of my life, "When you find faith, you will also find me." Then, out of the blue, I was offered a job in a facility for teenaged girls who were court ordered to a locked facility for evaluation and treatment. Out of twelve girls in that facility one was named Anastasia and one was named Faith. There are more things in heaven and earth...
Eight years later I remember a recent experience with a girl who was up all night, insisting that she knew from random Bible passages that her mother was dying and that she needed to call her right away. I told her no such call would be made at three o'clock in the morning. She did a bit of a diva act, singing her version of the Gloria Gaynor classic "I Will Survive" in her bathroom so I took her off the hallway before she woke up everyone in the facility. She told me I was just trying to shut her up and that I didn't care about her at all.
"Maybe I am just trying to shut you up and get you to go to sleep," I shrugged, "but I want you to look me in the eye and tell me again that I don't care about you."
She couldn't. She stared silently at me, sat down and regained her composure.
"This is what I do," she told me later. "I freak out over nothing."
It took her two weeks to face me again, always avoiding me after she found out her mother was fine. When she finally did, she said she was sorry and that she hoped I didn't think she was crazy.
"We're all crazy, but you've made it impossible for me to forget you. I don't think I'll ever experience a girl singing 'I Will Survive' in the bathroom again. Maybe thirty years ago, but today, man, that is classic."
"I take crazy to a whole different level, don't I?"
"Learn how to use it to your advantage and you'll be fine. Once you learn how to laugh at the darkness instead of letting it control you, well, you know."
There are a million stories lurking in the darkness of the city. Not everyone is hiding from them.
The boss recently asked me why in my reviews I have stated I have no interest in advancement or promotion within the company. I don't want to become a supervisor or a manager. I want nothing more than what I do, although I couldn't complain about a pay raise. I can't lose sight of my mission, and in my personal mythology I am living a life devoted to guiding lost souls of the circles of hell. It is something we dead folk need to learn to be good at. I'm a suicide nineteen years in recovery. There isn't anyone alive who can look me in the eye and tell me I don't understand the darkness. I've made love to it. And I woke up laughing.